Research on Effective Reading Instruction, K-4

summarized by

Margaret Moustafa

California State University Los Angeles


Research shows that early readers whose reading instruction focuses on meaning and phonics taught in context become better readers than early readers whose reading instruction emphasizes traditional phonics taught out of context. Here are some examples:


ü      Sacks and Mergendoller (1997) studied 132 kindergartners in eleven classrooms. They found the children who scored the lowest on entry into kindergarten improved the most in reading achievement in classrooms with contemporary, meaning-emphasis reading instruction and improved the least in traditional phonics-oriented classrooms.


ü      Reutzel and Cooter (1990) studied 91 children in four first-grade classrooms, two that used shared reading and other contemporary reading instructional strategies and two that had a traditional skills reading program. They found the children in the contemporary classrooms with shared reading became significantly better readers at the end of the school year than the children in the traditional skills classrooms.


ü      Freppon (1991) studied 24 first-grade children in four classrooms, two with a contemporary reading program that focused on meaning and two with a traditional skills reading programs. She found the children in the contemporary classrooms not only had a better sense that reading was constructing meaning with print but also were almost twice as successful as the children in the traditional classrooms at sounding out words.


ü      Milligan and Berg (1992) studied165 first-grade children, 82 in classrooms with contemporary reading instruction and 83 in classrooms with traditional reading instruction. They found the middle and lower-achieving children with the contemporary reading instruction were significantly better in reading comprehension than the middle and lower-achieving children with traditional reading instruction, especially the lower-achieving children. They also found the high, middle, and lower-achieving males with the contemporary reading instruction comprehended text significantly better than the males with traditional reading instruction.


ü      Eldredge, Reutzel, and Hollingsworth (1996) studied the reading growth of 78 second-grade children, some in classrooms with shared reading and some in classrooms with traditional round-robin reading (where children take turns reading a story orally). They found that shared reading typically moved average students from the 50th to the 80th percentile in word analysis, i.e., letter-sound correspondences, on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. They also found that average students in the shared reading group became 20 percent better in oral reading than the students in the round-robin group and the below average students in the shared reading group became 41 percent better than the students in the round robin group in oral reading.


ü      Anderson, Wilkinson, and Mason (1991) studied 149 third-grade children in six classrooms. They asked the teachers to teach their students four lessons, two lessons with an emphasis on overall story meaning and two lessons with an emphasis on such things as letter-phoneme correspondences and accurate oral reading. They found that the lessons that emphasized overall story meaning led to better outcomes in relation to factors such as students' recall, oral reading, story interest, and lesson time. While all of the reading groups—high, average, and low—benefited from the emphasis on meaning, the average and low groups especially benefited from it.


ü      Cantrell (1999) studied the reading achievement of 49 children in 8 multi-age primary classrooms, four that focused on reading for meaning and skills taught in context and four that taught skills out of context and did not promote meaning-centered reading. She found the students in the meaning emphasis classrooms achieved scores between the 50th and 76th percentile on the Stanford/9 national norms whereas the students in classrooms where skills were taught out of context and meaning was not emphasized achieved scores that fell below the 50th percentile.


ü      The 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress (Mullis, Campbell, and Farstrup, 1993, p. 30) asked fourth-grade teachers across the U.S. to characterize their reading instruction and then compared the teachers' responses with the students' scores on the NAEP standardized test of reading. This national, large scale study found that students whose reading instruction emphasized meaning outscored students whose reading instruction emphasized phonics and that students whose reading instruction had little or no emphasis on phonics outscored students whose reading instruction emphasized phonics.             




Anderson, R.C., Wilkinson, I.A.G. and Mason, J.M. (1991). A microanalysis of the small-group guided reading lesson: Effects of an emphasis on global story meaning. Reading Research Quarterly, XXVI, 417-441.

Cantrell, S.C. (1999). Effective teaching and literacy learning: A look inside primary classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 52, 4, 370-378.

Eldredge, J.L., Reutzel, D.R., and Hollingsworth, P.M. (1996). Comparing the effectiveness of two oral reading practices: Round-robin reading and the shared book experience. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 2, 201-225.

Frepon, P. (1991). Children’s concepts of the nature and purpose of reading in different instructional settings. Journal of Reading Behavior 23, 2, 139-163.

Milligan, J.L., and Berg, H. (1992). The effect of whole language on the comprehending ability of first grade children. Reading Improvement 29, 3, 146-154.

Mullis, I., Campbell, J. and Farstrup, A. (1993). NAEP 1992 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.

Reutzel, D.R. and Cooter, R.B. (1990). Whole language: Comparative effects on first-grade reading achievement. Journal of Educational Research 83, 252-257.

Sacks, C.H. and Mergendoller, J.R. (1997). The relationship between teachers’ theoretical orientation toward reading and student outcomes in kindergarten children with different initial reading abilities. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 4, 721-739.                   March 2002